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Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
24 Nov 2009

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

There was a certain inevitability about the build-up to Iestyn Davies’ recital at the Wigmore Hall in London last Wednesday.

Iestyn Davies opens “The Art of the Countertenor” series at the

Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]


Rather like an old-fashioned steam train, slowing gathering its strength, this English countertenor’s career has been going steadily on the right track for the past three or four years, and at the Wigmore he arrived at an important station in that career journey.

The very fact that he was included as the only English representative in the Wigmore’s long-awaited (some might say too-long awaited) international series of recitals devoted to the best of the countertenor voice speaks volumes for his growing reputation. It will be fascinating to see how this series works out and how right Davies is when he predicts that, in the near future, the voice type will be finally recognised by all as possessing all the different fachs that it does: from the lower altos/haute-contres, through the mezzo-soprano range, up to what have been termed, somewhat disparagingly by some, as “sopranists”. He hopes that the generic term “countertenor” will be, before long, as useless to music directors, producers and conductors as is “soprano” or “tenor” when deciding on roles and recordings.

The recital was, in one way, traditional fare for a countertenor of any age — he stuck to the 17th and 18th century repertoire that included some elements he must have been familiar with from his early days at St. John’s, Cambridge where he was grounded in the ways of English collegiate choral singing at its best. Yet, in another, he was also essaying fresh ground by choosing some composers and works which, to put it kindly, aren’t on everyone’s CD player. Leo’s Beatus Vir, for instance, and the younger Scarlatti’s Salve Regina.

Another surprise, and even less welcome, was the size of the Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, uncomfortably squashed onto the tiny stage, and sounding just too loud for that finely-tuned acoustic. Iestyn Davies’ first piece, the Alma Redemptoris Mater, by Hasse (another work truffled up from the archives) suffered from this aural imbalance as all the performers struggled for some compromise. Judicious culling of the instrumental line-up would have been advisable in the circumstances. His slight boyish figure and slightly worried expression did nothing to alter the feeling of him being slightly swamped — however his warm, technically secure and even tones gradually achieved a kind of balance, if not an ideal one. By the third section of the antiphon Davies was able to show some limpid phrasing and long-breathed lines, not to mention a beautifully judged messa di voce.

The band followed this with a concerto grosso by Locatelli, that many-skilled, well-connected jobbing composer more famous today perhaps for his woodwind works, and they skipped neatly through it nearly, but not quite, convincing us that this was not “baroque by the yard”.

Davies returned to complete the first half with some music that everyone in the hall could probably sing along to by now, it being virtually a right of passage for all young countertenors: Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, RV621. This was obviously a piece that Davies had lavished great care and thought on — his was a slightly stern reading perhaps, almost over-careful in the delicate ornaments, and certainly not a passionate rendering to engage religious fervour (or lay for that matter). Here, thankfully, the band were held in check by Mortensen and the score’s limpid transparency duly observed and the voice given its deserved place. An interesting programme note by Antony Burton revealed latest research as suggesting that Vivaldi did not write the piece for one of his orphaned girls at the Venice Ospedale after all — rather that it was commissioned in 1712 for a mainland church to be sung by either castrato or falsettist (or countertenor as we more agreeably know them today). Hopefully that information may quieten a few pouting mezzo-sopranos in the early music field.

After the interval, we were introduced to yet another undiscovered nugget from the archives, the Beatus vir by Leonardo Leo (first half of the 18th century). It might have had a religious source, but Leo’s operatic Neapolitan roots definitely showed with some florid writing and intricate rhythms interestingly at odds with the gentle calm of the text. Unfortunately, despite Davies’ best efforts, it left us unmoved and with a growing sense of puzzlement as to the programme choices. His effortless virtuosity, command of line and colour, begged for better musical meat. It was followed by the better-known Concerto in G minor, RV157 where Concerto Copenhagen and Mortensen showed their own virtuosity to excellent and loudly-applauded effect. Precision, excitement, risk-taking — it was all there. Somehow, this seemed only to point up what we craved from the vocal performer and weren’t getting.

The recital (the wrong term really, more a concert format) ended officially with Iestyn Davies giving his best with Domenico Scarlatti’s Salve Regina — a work less well known than most of the father’s vocal achievements, and although with some beautiful moments, not, frankly, in the same league as the better known settings of this text. It was also transposed down for the alto voice (and Davies’ voice is certainly in that category, seeming to sit most happily between A and D') which did nothing for the overall effect, losing the transparency and lightness which the original soprano would have given it — it is a fairly lugubrious piece to start with. Nevertheless, once again, the singer worked wonders with line and colour, wringing every note of the text for meaning and expression. His technical surety and warm evenness throughout the range, together with well-crafted phrasing, complemented the chromatic harmonies of Scarlatti’s sighing, weeping, score. His encore, unavoidably missed by this writer, was a short aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio — some say the best music of the night. However, that would not have surprised.

Having not heard Davies for some two years or more, this writer was impressed at how he has nurtured and burnished his vocal resources. What disappointed however was that, somehow, what should have been a real showcase of his undoubted talents, a setting out of his stall as a real contender in the world of top-flight countertenor singing, ended up too often as a pleasant, slightly academic, foray into musical might-have-beens. He spoke beforehand of how the voice-type has expanded and tested the boundaries: we didn’t see any of this on Wednesday night. He hopes for an ever-higher operatic profile (he has received some excellent notices already at ENO, in New York and in Europe) yet we saw little evidence of either a confident or beguiling stage persona. Hopefully, this type of “concerto seria” was something of a temporary siding en route, rather than a final destination.

We are likely to hear some very different, and hopefully more invigorating, fare as the series unfolds with Bejun Mehta, David Daniels, Lawrence Zazzo, Philippe Jaroussky and Andreas Scholl confirming what a golden age of countertenor singing it is that we live in.

Sue Loder © 2009

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